Archive for the ‘Activities & Techniques’ Category

Hymn to everyday beauty

February 24, 2009

Practicing the maintenance of extreme delight.


Percy Shelley, calling your inner poet

A while back, I read an interview with the brilliant Amy Adams. I’m not even sure why I was drawn to the article since I usually don’t enjoy reading about celebrities. (Honest.) I think I’m still so mesmerized by her performance in that scene around the kitchen table in Junebug that I couldn’t resist finding out a little something about her.  (Seriously, I don’t usually read about celebrities! Why can’t you believe me?)

Anyway, she told the interviewer the most delightful thing. She was talking about how much she loves drinking coffee. I’m paraphrasing here, but she said that sometimes she’s so excited at night, knowing that she gets to have a cup of coffee when she wakes up the next morning, that she can’t get to sleep. I just love that. I mean, I really love that.

I love that she reminded me to be intensely happy whenever I’m so inclined. The Charm-o-Matic revels in those moments.

When you think about it, this feeling of extreme delight is the stuff of poetry. It’s the essence of an artist at work. It’s about finding the happy bits of your life and celebrating them with the abandon of a poet. Who can forget Shelley’s famous line from Hymn to Intellectual Beauty, “I shrieked, and clasped my hands in ecstasy!”

You don’t have to be one of the famous instigators of the Romantic movement to find inspiration. The switch from grand poet to everyday person is simple: You’re not writing lines of verse, but you’re at work on your life, and your job is to enjoy it. Your art is in allowing the small things that delight you to bring inordinate pleasure. This goes deeper than a mere outpouring of emotion, though – our own Emily Dickinson thought of it another way: “To live is so startling it leaves little time for anything else.”

That’s tapping into the charm happening all around you. Either that, or it’s just a really, really, really good cup of coffee.

The simple “happy new year” plan

January 5, 2009
Icy trees also make me happy.

Icy trees also make me happy.

Here’s to putting the happy back in 2009.

For anyone who didn’t spend quite as much time last weekend as they’d planned reflecting on personal resolutions and creating elaborate schemes for the Best! Year! Yet!, I have a simple approach.

Making a detailed plan works for some people. But if you’re not of that stock, you don’t need to shy away entirely from what can be a rewarding and – dare I say it? – empowering activity.

Welcoming the new year in some deliberate way puts you in the catbird’s seat. You’re putting the year on notice, so to speak. We’re onto you, 2009. We see you flaunting yourself about on calendars everywhere. Well, that’s just fine. You’re not about to escape us.

Even a small gesture can shift your perception of those crafty, shifting sands of time. Besides, in this time of economic chaos, taking more of a bird’s eye view seems smart. (Especially if you’re already in the catbird’s seat.) What matters amidst upheaval is the big picture – we’ll likely all have to be more flexible and resourceful than usual when it comes to the details in 2009.

So here’s the plan.

1. Spend a moment reflecting on what really makes you happy. Think bigger than career goals or travel plans. What are the meta-narratives and the uber-themes of your life that define you and inspire you? I don’t mean this to sound overly grand … it’s just about reaching that layer above where our heads usually are for everyday matters. Relationships can be on the list, too. If you have an extra few minutes for the deluxe version of this process, also consider what makes your life unique: that inimitable combination of your story and your talents. In this economy, having a strong grasp on your particular thumbprint (I’m finished with cats and birds and have moved onto thumbs for a while) may help you re-think the way you spend your time.

2. Make a list of several things already in place in your life that make you happy. Yes, writing down what you’re thankful for sounds hopelessly clichéd and even overly elementary, but it’s one of the best ways to focus on what works for you. And I swear, focusing on what works makes more things work. A simple list only takes a couple of minutes and doesn’t have to be profound. I must admit that trees often appear on my list. Yes, I’m thankful for trees. Even more than thumbs, they make me happy. Thumbs up for trees. This realization translates into strolling through nature and staring longingly out my kitchen window, perhaps for long stretches of time. Ah, you’re feeling better about your own list already, aren’t you? I’m sure you’ll come up with something more piercing than that. The point is not to wonder about my personal time management skills but rather to realize that sometimes just approaching life from a position of gratitude creates other important shifts.

3. Find ways this year to focus on the happy fruits of these reflections. That might mean making a goal or two or getting rid of a few activities that don’t fit the bill. Or it might mean simply deciding to more fully appreciate what’s already at your fingertips and seeing what the perceptual shift will do for you.

As you can see, the theme here is happy. That is how the saying goes, after all … “happy new year.” So let’s put the happy back.  I know it sounds simple. So simple, in fact, that there’s no harm in trying it.

Charm-i-days Idea #6: Swaps and coupons

December 9, 2008

Swaps and coupons lower the stress and the cost of holiday merry-making.


Gourmet magazine's swap-ready cookies

More people are deciding this year to celebrate the holidays without pricey gifts – or even without traditional packages & bows altogether. Phrases such as “it’s the thought that counts” and “quality time” are in frequent use. The Charm-o-Matic approves.

Swap-o-Licious: Scientists have discovered two main types of swaps – one that results in more baked goods than Rudolph can shake his nose at and one that results in presents under your tree.

For the baked type, simply invite a group of friends over. A traditional cookie exchange means you and all of your friends have a variety of treats throughout the holidays. You can either do a swap with people you would have been exchanging gifts with, or you can divvy up the cookies later for gifts to neighbors, co-workers and such. (Or you can eat them all – I won’t tell.) If you’re fresh out of recipe ideas, take a look at Gourmet magazine’s beautiful cookie retrospective.

If you have a smaller group, everyone can bring enough casseroles for all swappers – for example, if four people are participating, Sally makes four lasagnas, Cindy Loo Who makes four classic tuna noodles, Mrs. Claus makes her corn and zucchini concoction and so on. All swappers go home with three casseroles (plus her own back at home) to stick in the fridge or freezer and whip out when she doesn’t feel like cooking.

For the gifting type, pick a theme such as sporting goods or kitchen gadgets or kid’s clothing and swap like there’s no tomorrow. Everyone brings a load of items they no longer need, and all of the friends get to pick what they want from the pile. Fun.

Coupon-o-Rama: Find the construction paper or card stock that must be sitting around somewhere and create a few holiday coupons. These won’t be like the ones you used to make for Father’s Day by hastily scribbling “one free hug” and “one free car wash.” Use whatever resources you have so they  reflect your personality – print them with graphics from your computer, dig up some fun stickers or work your own magic by drawing or showcasing that impressive penmanship of yours (don’t think I haven’t noticed). The more specific these coupons are to your relationship with the coupon-ee, the better.

Joy of banishing

November 19, 2008

The Charm-o-Matic doesn’t cost a dime … and getting rid of clutter is priceless.

A happy shelf

A happy shelf

Even though the Charm-o-Matic does sometimes exhibit fondness for certain kinds of material possessions, the point is to look deeply and fully appreciate what’s around us.

If you’ve been hit by the financial crisis and know that it isn’t responsible to spend even a few dollars here and there (they do add up, after all), you can put the Charm-o-Matic in motion by retrofitting your perspective on what you already own.

One of my favorite hobbies is getting rid of things. I realize that some people enjoy dancing and painting, but it’s clearing out closets, storage boxes and drawers that thrills me. Part of the pleasure lies in the power of banishing things you don’t absolutely love. The outcome is delightful, too – streamlining makes room to more thoroughly enjoy your favorite things. Such liberation and focus is delicious. I get delirious, I tell you.

Think of it: Those two extra vases you never use – gone to Goodwill. That pile of sweaters you haven’t worn since the blizzard of ’84 – nevermore. The books on your shelves that you didn’t rock your world and that you’ll never read again – off to the used bookstore with them.

You are the curator of your life, and that includes your possessions. Is anything weighing your down? Thank it very much and send it on its way. It’s that easy. Then, focus on what makes you happy – trinkets or objet d’art that give you positive feelings.

Maybe you have a childhood keepsake tucked away somewhere that you could bring into the open. Or maybe some beautiful vase holds fun memories, but it’s stuffed in the back of the pantry because your counter is too cluttered. Or maybe the clutter-free counter space itself is what you need.

Releasing old things you don’t need or want frees up all kinds of space for great new surprises – physical, metaphysical and somewhere in between.

Disruptively cute

October 10, 2008

Wipe out the monotony from any day by practicing wanton acts of cuteness.

Pop Ink soap design ... making puppies happy.

Pop Ink soap design ... making puppies happy.

CSA Images has been cranking out retro-meets-modern designs for quite a while, and their Pop Ink division specializes in the sweet end of the spectrum. They play with strange animal illustrations and fuse them with practical objects like soap and wrapping paper, thus sparing us the embarrassment of owning a figurine collection.

Thanks to their plates, you can have a side of nostalgic whimsy every time you serve a meal. Styles feature ’60s-era silhouettes, paper dolls and animals. The “cannibal kingdom” napkins show a demented side to their twee, frolicking animals.

Their books are more syrupy. Happy Kitty Bunny Pony, subtitled “a saccharine mouthful of super cute,” explores America’s fascination with all things precious and includes plenty of turn-of-the-century and Depression-era kitties, bunnies and ponies. Pop Ink seems to capture the ridiculousness of these images, but also the joy. They respect the cute, deconstruct it and twist in one impishly deft swoop. You’ll be happy to know they have a new line of memo pads, too, which have a more sophisticated feel.

The popular blog Cute Overload is like a reality show version of Pop Ink’s sensibility. You can enjoy the photos of animals that designer Megan Frost posts each day because you think they’re seriously adorable or because you can’t quite stop yourself from looking or because you think the downfall of civilization is upon us – or you can experience all these perspectives at once.

I know the cuteness seems gratuitous, but here’s my point: Find some little thing that makes you happy, and invite it into your life. The everyday mundane can lull us into forgetting we’re the ones in charge of how we feel in any given moment – and not the rude person at work or the crazy drivers on the road. These bursts of cuteness are extreme enough to disrupt the banality.

The world sings for you

October 7, 2008

Nine out of ten doctors agree … upbeat music makes you happy.

The doctor has spoken.

The doctor has spoken.

A few years ago I was reading a book by one of the early mind-body experts, Dr. Andrew Weil. I think of him as my personal Harvard-Medical-School-trained shamanic Santa Claus. Tucked somewhere in the book was a list of steps to a healthier life, and one of his recommendations was listening to upbeat world music. Hmm, I thought … since I’m allergic to penicillin, I might as well give happy music a try.

This advice came at a time after my divorce when I had moved by myself to a part of the country where I knew not one person. For some reason, it didn’t occur to me that this might be difficult and isolating until I was already there. Suddenly I had hives that no doctor could stop. My apartment was temporarily overrun with cockroaches, courtesy of a neighbor who set off a bug bomb and left town. When the 17-year cicadas (aka locusts, in colloquial terms) started hatching that same week, I seriously thought the ten plagues of Moses were raining down upon my head.

I was doing plenty of traditional soul-searching, but I figured a little background music couldn’t hurt. The concept makes sense anyway – we make better decisions and come to a clearer understanding when we feel at ease. A contented perspective makes us more receptive and draws in more positivity. Some say “like attracts like,” some call it “the law of attraction” and some say we reap what we sow. However you want to say it, it’s true. We generate more for ourselves of whatever vibes we’re putting out there into our spinning blue planet.

And as metaphysicians have been telling us for years, positive thoughts don’t work in a vacuum – to really improve our situation, we have to put some emotional heft behind those cognitive bursts of ours. We align the heart and mind. Or as my inner mathematician is always going around scribbling:

The Charm-o-Matic happy formula: positive thought + positive emotion = good.

A happy dance is inevitable.

A happy dance is inevitable.

If only I had majored in physics instead of English, I could astound you further. So as overly simplistic as it sounds, listen to happy music.

If you aren’t already into world music, the Putumayo dance albums are a great place to start. “Baila – A Latin Dance Party” is my current favorite. Or look for artists such as Amadou & Mariam, Ozomatli, Yerba Buena, Balkan Beat Box, Mexican Institute of Sound and El Gran Silencio.

Free options: If your budget doesn’t have room for new music & you don’t already own some world tunes, just give your local library a try. Also, you can listen to the Putumayo World Music Hour for free online. Or subscribe to the free KCRW Top Tune podcast. It’s a fresh song every day, and while not all of the songs meet the Happy Meter on the Charm-o-Matic, plenty do. Plus, you’ll stay up with the legendary Morning Becomes Eclectic playlist.

So take it from someone who had hives and cockroaches and locusts all at once and felt all alone in the cold, cruel world: Music helps. Play some in the morning when you’re getting ready. Play some in the evening when you’re doing the dishes. Play some in the afternoon when you feel like sticking a fork in your eye.

Latin Dance Party, $15
Library, internet radio & podcast, free